Sep 19, 2014

Self-Esteem: The Reflection of Our Actions by Isaac Snow

Self-esteem, being our evaluation of the self, is the highest thing we can hope for, and thus it is important to analyze where our notions of self-esteem lie. Self-esteem is set by the rational reflection of the self's power of acting. It is affected by the praise and blame from others, as well as the self's notion of what right actions are and the ability to abide by those notions. If one allows external elements to affect his opinion of what constitutes correct actions, he runs the risk of shying away from the activities that are truly meaningful. Submission to outside influence causes a person to place emphasis in his evaluation of self-esteem in actions he does not consciously agree with. Thus, if he is not excellent in those actions, he diminishes his self-esteem meaninglessly. Even if he does excel in those action the disjointedness of the external pressure and internal, unconscious rejection prevents authentic happiness. This essay seeks to determine how a man living in our society can attempt to gain control over his own happiness by placing the authority of the definition of meaningful actions internally.

Aristotle speaks of happiness as a consequence of acting in accordance to virtue. Happiness is thus an activity and not an end state. A person can only be happy, as a consequence, when they act in what he and others believe is a virtuous manner. In the absence of a teleological end-purpose, man is given the ability to define his own meaning within the limitations of his immutable psychology and physiology. Therefor a person has the ability to define is own meaning of virtue (and hence the actions that will lead to his happiness), but to the extent that he is a social animal, he lacks a comprehensive control over his ability to craft his own notions; therefor, man is reliant on society for even his abstract happiness.

This inability to define one's own meaning of virtue conflicts with the typical Canadian view (and possibly other groupings of people I don't have direct contact with) as many see their jobs as solely a source of income, and the income as a means to achieving happiness. The truly happy people are the one's who balance a job that they love with a fulfilling personal life. But these people are only happy by chance. It is by chance that their perceptions of fulfillment align with what society forces them to do. The easy way to happiness within a strict society is to simply line up your will with what society demands of you. If society says the virtuous man works hard, work hard. However, in deeper reflection these people of false assimilation may be found to not be truly happy at all. The happy man is the man who, on his deathbed, can look back on his life and say, "that is what I wanted to do as those actions are what I felt meaningful, and I excelled in my performance." What the Stoic's prescribe is falsity; and dishonesty to one's self necessarily distorts and diminishes one's self-esteem.

The external show of happiness itself becomes an important part of a person's assimilation in society, as few people tolerate an outwardly unhappy person. This unhappy person, although more honest than if he were to assume a 'happy' countenance, is unlikely to obtain the career positions and social relations that would allow full assimilation into society. Thus, if he refuses to fake his true feelings, he will maintain his position as a reject; and, furthermore, this will hamper his ability to achieve the real emotion of happiness. The person that rejects the social definitions of virtuous actions, yet attempts to perform them anyways, going so far as to accept the external evaluations, will stimulate in himself a negative self-esteem, even if he is judged positively as those positive evaluations are of actions he rejects as unimportant.

External evaluation effects self-esteem, although it is different to it. Eternal evaluation effects self-esteem to the extent that, as social animals, we are conscious of the opinions others hold of us and reflect this in our self-esteem. Our view of the external opinions may, of course, very likely be inaccurate.There is an element of our own will when determining how other feel about us.

We have, as a capitalist society, a seemingly objective way of performing our analysis of external evaluation through our monetary worth. It is not uncommon to evaluate people based on their perceived potential to generate monetary value for the evaluator. Using this measure, the worth of the individual is necessarily reduced as the immaterial parts of ourselves are not able to be valued. This type of behaviour is destructive because it necessarily scorns those things that have no apparent monetary value. Erich Fromm gives an example of this under-appreciation. The employees of a department store underestimate the worth of the individual. The individual is not valued because he is only important as far as he represents the universal customer. If he is being mistreated, the store is not worried about his individual mistreatment, but solely that his mistreatment "would indicate that there was something wrong and it might mean that the store would lose other customers for the same reason." Fromm summarizes: "as an abstract customer he is important; as a concrete customer he is utterly unimportant." No one at the store cares about the individual person, but only his utility and his representation as a general customer. Thus, we need to be weary of allowing any sort of outside evaluation enter into the reflection of our abilities that produces our self-esteem.

Everyday the individual is considered differently, and thus valued differently, by the various parties that we interact with. At work I am valued at the value I deliver to the company, at school I am valued at the value of my scholarly input, and even in social relations I am the value that I deliver to that person. With these reference points in mind, we base our self-worth on our ability to market ourselves. We are worth what others say we are worth; and one of our most important 'virtuous actions' is the ability to simply appear valuable to others; even if that means deceiving the other person or assuming a false personality. This is a type of circular reasoning that distorts our self-esteem, and ultimately leads to a temporary, positive self-esteem that is actually empty as it is not built on our ability to perform meaningful actions.

There are only two parties that could possibly put the full value of our self in view: the self itself and the people who truly love us. As true love is hard to achieve, and may be impossible; especially if we begin with a lack of real self-esteem, we must achieve the confidence required to evaluate ourselves (without pride, the overestimation and distortion of our true abilities) and accept our results. The results, if accepted, will either allow our self-esteem to flourish, or indicate areas where we need to improve. I am not advocating a complete disregard of external sources of valuation, only that they are inadequate and must be viewed abreast to our own evaluation - to either support it or point out flaws in our reflection, but never to replace.

Many people in first-world countries suffer from depression. People view this as a purported paradox: How can people living in comfortable conditions with relatively high incomes be less happy than those living with poverty in hostile environments? The question is confounded further when we acknowledge that many statistics use purchasing power as a proxy for happiness. The answer to the 'paradox' lies in the individual's ability to align his actions with the virtues that he deems to be fulfilling. The wealthy man is unhappy because he spends his time engaged in meaningless activities. The poverty-stricken man in contrast spends his time engaged in meaningful activities; these activities are meaningful if only because they contribute to the perseverance of self. The man living in a wealthy country with social programs has his basic physiological needs met; thus, he needs to create meaning in higher-order actions. This is a difficult task, and many fall victim to the errors discussed previously.

As an example, it can be said that the archetypical Canadian father is at work 40 hours per week; yet, research supports the hypothesis that a father is with his children only 6.5 hours per week. Being with your child is more likely to rank as a more meaningful activity than work. A person who seeks a positive self-esteem will find a better balance of work and family; sacrificing a higher income if need be (this is justified if spending time with your children is more important than the extraneous products and services you could otherwise afford). Within a first-world country a person with a young child has many options concerning the child's care and has the ability to choose to accept certain services like warfare in light of the work-family balance. A person in a third-world country may consider work as a means for his child's perseverance as meaningful enough, and opt to spend less personal time with his family. The point is that our self-esteem is affected by our external conditions as our evaluation of virtuous actions are contingent on what is possible.

Self-esteem is a joy that arises from considering our virtues in a positive way. The idea of our weakness is a sadness. Thus it is important to be able to consider ourselves in a positive way, but this is only possible if we have an appropriate sense of what virtues are important. If we lack a strong self, we run the risk of valuing ourselves based on the virtues that those others posit. My boss considers me virtuous when I over-work myself. The store owner sees my virtue in my extraordinary spending habits and ability to support the payments. If these are among the only affects on my identity of virtues, I risk skewing the criteria for my self-esteem. My self-esteem will be based on the consideration of virtues that are inappropriate. And this will be a difficult habit to break out of. Once I've built my self-esteem on inappropriate virtues I will lack the strength to dismiss those virtues for more appropriate ones. With confidence in our own definitions of virtues and our valuations of our actions in accordance to those virtues, whilst taking into account, albeit with skepticism to its accuracy, external valuations, we will be able to achieve positive self-esteem and true happiness.

Isaac Snow
Prideful in Kelowna, BC
June 2014